I can’t talk about, write about or pay a visit to the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame without thinking of the late Billy Dee.
It happened again when I was preparing last week’s column in which I reiterated my belief that the hall should be relocated to the Pictou County Wellness Centre.
Though Billy grew up in Trenton and I grew up in New Glasgow, he and I had quite a few things in common.
We were both born in 1938, only 34 days apart, Billy being the older.
Before reaching our teens, we both pledged lifetime allegiance to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and we both grew up loving the New York Yankees.
We both loved listening to hockey games, baseball games and sports shows on the radio, late at night, in bed with the lights out.
And we both loved watching local ball players and hockey players every time we could get to a rink or ball field.
By the time we were reaching our teens, I was dreaming of someday being sports editor of The Chronicle Herald, Billy was dreaming about Pictou County having its own sports hall of fame.
I called my recent book “I’ve Lived My Dream.” Had Billy written his memoir, a similar title would have been just as appropriate for him.
Yes, Billy lived his dream, too.
More than a dozen years ago, when he and I spent an entire afternoon chatting about his career, he explained his childhood dream this way: “The Hall of Fame idea came up when I was a kid. I used to listen to the radio a lot at night time, listening to sports shows from the States, and they’d talk about this player and that player going to the hockey hall of fame or the baseball hall of fame. So I often said to myself, ‘Why don’t we have a hall of fame for our own athletes?’ I was about 14 then.”
Thirty-seven years later, the county’s own hall of fame became a reality and, more than anyone else, Billy Dee was the one who made it happen.
If it hadn’t been for him pursuing his dream, I don’t believe Pictou County would have gotten its own facility to honour athletes and others involved in the local sports community.
By then, he himself had an impressive profile.
Through the years, he was an athlete, a coach, a manager, a trainer, a promoter, a sponsor, a volunteer, an historian, an educator, an organizer, an employee at the car works and pulp mill and a member of Trenton’s town council.
Amongst it all was his dream.
Another pertinent comment he made to me those many years ago: “My God, if I ever get the chance to create a hall in Pictou County, I’m doing it.”
In 1989 the hall opened when, with the municipal leadership of then mayor Barry Trenholm, the old meat packing plant on Power Plant Road in the town’s north end was acquired for the hall’s first home. The following year, the first induction ceremony was held.
What a cast of all-stars served on the early board of directors. Bobby Beaton (first honorary chair), John (Brother) MacDonald, Hughie Murray, Ralph Cameron, Sparky Paris, Ernie Jordan, Dave Melanson, Jim Sears, Lawrence LeBlanc, Donalda Fox and Clary Semple were among them.
The chairman — no surprise — was Billy Dee.
The hall grew quickly and, thanks to the tireless efforts of Dee, Trenholm and Kenny Langille, thousands of artifacts and memorabilia were obtained and displayed. Something like 2,000 people a year visited the site.
Quite an achievement!
Then, in 2002, there was some bad news. The old building was going to be sold. The hall of fame was given just three weeks to vacate the premises.
Without time to find a new place, the artifacts, trophies, banners, photos, everything there had to be packed into boxes and moved to a vacant school in the Steeltown.
It was no place for a hall of fame, no place to display all the memorabilia, no place to attract visitors.
Dee’s dream almost ended.
But he never gave up hope that another location would be found. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said to me.
Finally, in 2005, space was found at the current location in New Glasgow’s federal building on East River Road.
Again, there was not enough space to properly display the great collection of artifacts that had been collected.
Then came a bigger blow — Billy took ill and, after being diagnosed by a specialist in Halifax, he gave up the chairmanship, Langille taking over.
In April 2008, Billy died. He was three days short of his 70th birthday.
The county — Billy’s county — had suffered a huge loss. A good man, a good husband, a good grandfather and great-grandfather, a good friend to so many was gone.
But it wasn’t the end for the hall.
Langille became the chairman and, with the same determination and dedication he had seen in Dee, the hall didn’t miss a step. It would have made Billy proud.
Kenny, like Dee before him, became a municipal politician, serving as a councillor in New Glasgow for 15 years. One of his responsibilities was being on the hall of fame’s board. When he finished a decade and a half on council, he believed his tenure with the hall would also end.
He went to Billy, and told him it would probably mean his time with the hall was over. Billy’s response was to the point: “You’re not going anywhere.”
Talking about the facility with Langille not long after that, he made one comment that stood out: “It would be nice to have more room (for the artifacts), that’s for sure.”
Next week: The hall’s direction remains strong under Barry Trenholm.